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During their Aug. 6 meeting, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed to adopt an emergency ordinance for the county that would enforce compliance of the state coronavirus health order. The enforcement ordinance is effective immediately and allows the county to issue code citations of $100 to individuals and up to $10,000 for businesses, for those who don’t follow the state’s health order.

The ordinance pertains to county jurisdiction, and individual municipalities can choose to adopt the county’s ordinance, or create their own. 

Those who see a person or business violating the state’s health order are being encouraged to call a newly established county hotline (1-833-SAFE707) and/or email (safe707@sonoma-county.org) to report those not following the order. Tips will be monitored and investigated by the county’s permit department.

“Our goal is to prioritize education and outreach before fines. We know that most people are following the health orders and wearing facial coverings when out in public, practicing social distancing and avoiding large gatherings,” said Board Chair Susan Gorin in a county statement. “But we have seen a need for more enforcement options to deal with the small number of folks who are willfully disregarding the order. This ordinance will help address this issue in our community.”

Under the ordinance, people can be fined a flat fee of $100 for health order violations like failing to wear facial coverings, not practicing safe social distancing from non-family members when in public or taking part in gatherings of more than 12 people who aren’t sheltering in the same household. They also can be fined for refusing to abide by COVID-19 safety protocols required at restaurants, stores and other businesses. Businesses like restaurants, bars and stores face fines starting at $1,000 for noncompliance such as not requiring safe practices for employees. Business violations are subject to a civil penalty of $5,000 for a second violation and $10,000 for each additional violation by the same responsible party.

“We need the teeth in this program, the ordinance itself,” Fourth District Supervisor James Gore said. “Five of us are sitting here saying that the intent is to start with compassionate enforcement and education and then to cite people who are jerks, who are looking back at our compassionate enforcement and saying, ‘I’m not going to put my mask on’ or ‘I’m not going to shut my business.’ That’s who you fine — you don’t go out into a group of people and just start pulling out your tickets and just start throwing them out at everybody.”

Along with the ordinance, county staff presented a budget for the ordinance’s subsequent enforcement and marketing, asking supervisors to allocate $143,142 to outreach and marketing for the ordinance. Following a request from the supervisors at their July 23 meeting about creating a compliance ordinance, the county’s communications manager, Paul Gullixson, presented a three-pronged plan that includes creating door hangers and flyers to hand out in areas that may have heavier Latinx traffic, a $55,000 print media campaign for advertising in local publications and advertising on digital platforms targeted toward younger people, like Facebook, Netflix and Hulu.

For management of the county’s coronavirus hotline and enforcement efforts, Permit Sonoma requested $151,907 to hire an additional code enforcement inspector and senior office assistant. The request is half of what Permit Sonoma had initially requested during the county’s July meeting, when it asked for funds for double the amount of help. In order to make up the difference, Permit Sonoma’s proposal lists using office support from the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office.

Though she voted in favor of the ordinance, Third District Supervisor Shirlee Zane largely opposed both adding additional Permit Sonoma staff and the marketing funds being set aside for print media ads.

“There are some good things in this proposal, but for the most part I don’t like it,” Zane said.

Rather, Zane questioned whether or not Permit Sonoma could pull people from other county departments to help with hotline management and ordinance enforcement. 

The funds being set aside for the enforcement program was also questioned by the public, many of whom expressed interest in the county instead using the dollars to increase testing capacity, create mobile testing units to go into communities that have been hit harder by the virus and increase education efforts and resources for those impacted by the virus and health order.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, folks were also largely against the implementation of issuing citations for those not wearing masks, with many people discussing the financial ramifications of issuing citations to people already impacted by the current economic downturn. 

In response to the possibility of other departments handling enforcement of the order, people speaking during public comment were opposed to the possibility that enforcement would go through the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, with multiple people citing both community distrust in law enforcement and Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick’s late-May announcement that he wouldn’t be enforcing the county’s health order (shortly after the announcement, Essick agreed to enforce the order). The enforcement for the county’s order will be through the county’s code enforcement department. 

Commenters also feared that the reporting and enforcement system outlined in the ordinance would unfairly target people of color in the county and result in communities that are already disproportionately impacted by the virus feeling a disproportionate impact of the compliance efforts. 

Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said that the root of the urgency ordinance came about when speaking with workers during a town hall that included workers throughout the county sharing their concerns. Hopkins said that during the town hall, people expressed “a tremendous amount of fear surrounding unfair working conditions,” and were concerned about how to report if their workplace wasn’t following COVID-19-related health orders.

“It came out of an initiative that was really focused on equity,” she said. 

Along with her ‘yes’ vote during the board’s deliberation, Hopkins requested that county staff provide ongoing data about the enforcement numbers to ensure that the enforcement of the order remains equitable. 

The supervisors also requested that the involved county departments present to the board in three months statistics from the enforcement, as well as information tracking how effective the outreach and marketing plan is.

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